Israeli prosecutors have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of treating favours as “currency” at the opening of a corruption trial in Jerusalem.
The trial, along with an inconclusive election, has clouded Mr Netanyahu’s prospects of remaining in office.
Having pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud, Mr Netanyahu came to Jerusalem District Court in a dark suit and black protective mask on Monday.
He conferred quietly with lawyers as his supporters and critics held raucous demonstrations outside.
“The relationship between Netanyahu and the defendants became currency, something that could be traded,” prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari said in presenting so-called Case 4000, concerning the premier’s alleged ties to the owners of an Israeli news site.
“This currency could distort a public servant’s judgment.”
Mr Netanyahu left before the first prosecution witness testified in the first such trial of a sitting Israeli prime minister.
🇮🇱 — NEWS: VIDEO: Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has entered the courtroom in the Jerusalem District Court where the evidentiary stage of the corruption trial has begun. pic.twitter.com/LtlX5s62rw
— Belaaz (@TheBelaaz) April 5, 2021
He has described himself as the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Meanwhile, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin began consulting with party heads on who might form the next coalition government.
The result is a toss-up after the March 23 election, the fourth in two years, gave neither Mr Netanyahu nor his rivals a clear mandate.
Mr Rivlin told delegates from Mr Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party that ethical considerations could factor in his decision, apparently alluding to the trial.
“I do not see a way in which a government can be established,” Mr Rivlin told representatives of centrist Yesh Atid, the largest opposition party, which hopes to unseat Mr Netanyahu.
“The people of Israel should be very concerned that we may be dragged into a fifth election.”
At Jerusalem District Court, prosecutors sought to establish that Mr Netanyahu granted regulatory favours to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq, in return for more positive coverage of him and his wife Sara on a company news website known as Walla.
Former Walla chief executive Ilan Yeshua testified that he had been “barraged” by email and text message demands from both the Walla owners and Netanyahu confidants to improve reporting on the prime minister while attacking his political rivals.
“How much can you lie?” Iris Elovitch, wife of Walla’s owner at the time and a co-defendant in Case 4000, shouted at Mr Yeshua.
In another of the three cases against him, Mr Netanyahu is accused of receiving gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends, including Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
Mr Netanyahu passed Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion in 2019 as the country’s longest-serving prime minister, having held the office continuously since 2009 and for several years in the 1990s.